Video: (Heart) Felt Figures
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Step across the white-marble threshold into the dimly lighted gallery housing Denise Marika’s “More Weight,” MoMA’s newest video installation (up through Jan. 26), and you immediately see the appeal. An imposing metal structure (12 feet tall, 7 feet wide, 3 feet deep) is stuffed accordion-style with pinkish felt. Projected onto the felt are two life-size nude figures. An androgynous woman is carrying a limp, nearly lifeless man in her arms. She’s managing the weight, but just barely, pacing from side to side in a continuous video loop, struggling not to drop her charge.
However artificial it may sound, the image is amazingly life-like. The mauvish-pink, rolling felt lends the bodies an intensity of color and passion; the nudity, rather than being merely erotic, makes you think of the timelessness of the human figure; the situation suggests eternal human struggle, particularly the heroism of women.
On a recent Saturday, I watched a steady stream of museum goers as they came upon this “video sculpture.” Some passed through the room quickly, eyeing one side and then the reverse projection on the other with a confused or amused expression. But a great many stopped to really study the piece. Some were still confused; I overheard one elderly woman reassuring another, “It’s an art thing. You don’t have to understand it.” But others had more knowing expressions, ranging from intrigued to touched to obviously concerned –which was my own response. After a while, listening to the woman’s heavy, labored breathing punctuated with grunts of redoubled effort (the piece’s only sound), my chest began to tighten and I became quite anxious. I felt the need to help this woman, with her burden, so real did it seem, and yet I couldn’t.
Drawn into one end of the room by the piece’s beauty, I was expelled from the other with the gift/burden of the emotions it triggered. One would barely think of this piece as video art (only a few people looked up at the projector, trying to figure out where the image came from). Freed from the constrictions of the monitor, the three-dimensionalized figures interact with their surroundings, allowing one to concentrate on the meaning of the work, rather than its high-tech processes.
If the piece speaks more to the sculptural tradition, it may be because Ms. Marika comes from a classical sculpture background, having trained at UCLA in the early ’80s. Yet she became interested early on in the possibilities of combining sculpture with the emerging field of video because, as she explains, “I really felt the need to speak actively to issues, and I didn’t want to speak to the issues in a verbal way — I wanted you to feel them.”
Ms. Marika, who is now based in Boston, has had several one-person gallery shows and two years ago had a large exhibition at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, but she is probably best known for a controversial public installation commissioned by suburban Brookline, Mass., in 1994. Called “Crossing,” it was an altered crosswalk signal placed at an actual intersection. But instead of the Walk/Don’t Walk message, the signals held projections of a nude woman holding onto and trying to protect her naked, curious child, supposedly from running into the street. Again far from sexy or explicit, the images nonetheless caused a bit of an uproar from citizens shocked by their placement in a public space. By the time they held a town meeting about it, says the 41-year-old Ms. Marika, who uses herself and her family in her art, the discussion had evolved, and people realized that “it wasn’t sexual, or threatening, but about things we all deal with everyday. The more time people spent with it, the more they related to it.”